When 6-foot-1, 270-pound East Palo Alto native Will “Powerhouse” Hobbs signed a contract last fall with All Elite Wrestling (AEW), it marked an exciting breakthrough moment more than 10 years in the making.
After surviving a turbulent childhood, suffering the loss of a brother, and taking his knocks in pro wrestling’s hardscrabble indie circuit, he finally was set to shine in prime time.
“Been through hell and back,” he tweeted. “Dreams do come true. Believe in #WILLPOWER.”
Even people who don’t follow the everyday body slams and chokeholds of professional wrestling are familiar with names like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Hulk Hogan and John Cena. But those past superstars are the rare exception in a brutal business that finds many of its participants working far away from the TV spotlight, in low-budget venues, and for paltry pay.
This is the world Hobbs occupied before joining AEW, a relatively new rival to the WWE that airs weekly action-packed matches on TNT. In 2009, shortly after graduating from Sequoia High School in Redwood City and learning the ropes at Hayward’s All Pro Wrestling training school, Hobbs began paying his dues in wrestling’s version of baseball’s low minor leagues.
There was the time he drove nine hours to Winnemucca, Nevada, to perform in a match for $20. There were days when he didn’t get paid at all. Times when he and his fellow Spandex-clad gladiators had to help set up and break down the ring equipment. And that night he suffered a nasty head gash 30 seconds into a 25-minute match but went on with the show — gushing blood and all — because, as he says, “there are no timeouts in wrestling. You just man up and do it.”
As the years wore on, the travel and the hardships took a toll. Industry behemoth WWE “dangled a carrot” in front of him at times, but never sealed the deal.
“I put up with a lot of negativity,” he says. “There were people who told me that I should walk away. But I didn’t want to be known as a quitter.”
Still, the future didn’t exactly look bright — until one day last September when AEW officials came calling and offered Hobbs a contract after a few trial outings in off-air showdowns known as “dark” matches. Now, after toiling for so long in obscurity, he appears regularly in the organization’s “Dynamite” telecasts (8 p.m. Wednesdays, TNT) as a member of Team Taz (run by retired wrestler Peter Senerchia) and alongside such established stars as Kenny Omega, Chris Jericho and Jon Moxley.
He even has a couple of T-shirts emblazoned with his name in the AEW online store.
“I actually cried,” Hobbs says of the day AEW announced his signing on Twitter. “I was overwhelmed. After all the BS I went through, it was validation for me.”
It was also the realization of a dream he’d had since the age of 4. Raised by his grandparents who were big wrestling fans and regularly attended matches at the Cow Palace, Hobbs was three-sport star at Sequoia who signed up for football mostly because “I could hit someone and not get into trouble.”
But unlike his neighborhood friends, he was mesmerized by the ferocious fisticuffs, wild aerial moves and theatrical antics of wrestling.
“Other kids didn’t watch wrestling. It was either football, basketball, or baseball,” he says. “I got teased and I got into a lot of fights over it. But I couldn’t help what I loved.”
Still, his grandmother encouraged Hobbs to participate in team athletics throughout his youth because, as he recalls, “you either played sports or hung out with the wrong crowd — selling drugs, getting into mischief … There was a lot of violence and shootings where I lived.”
Among the victims of that violence was an older brother who was shot to death shortly before Hobbs turned 22.
“He loved wrestling too, and he was supposed to be my manager,” Hobbs says. “But he got caught up with the wrong crowd.”
Last September, Hobbs participated in a 21-man battle royale as part of a pay-for-view event held in Jacksonville, Fla. It was a huge moment in his fledgling affiliation with AEW — and it happened to be the anniversary of his brother’s death.
“I was emotional, but it was a good day,” he recalls. “Everything I did, I did for him.”
Now, Hobbs is busy making a bold impression in the ring — not only with his massive, muscle-bound frame, but a trademark sneer that’s enough to make any foe think twice about dropkicking him in the head.
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“It’s just a habit — something I’ve been doing since I was a kid,” he says of the fearsome facial expression. “I developed a mean look so people would leave me alone. It’s kind of like a growling dog.”
Looking ahead, Hobbs is determined not to take his newfound stature for granted.
“I can’t get comfortable. I gotta do the work,” he insists. “I want to be known as a force — one of the greats. A world champion. I want to get to the top of the mountain.”
He also wants to be an example of a local guy who does good.
“Most of my friends I grew up with are either dead or locked up,” he says. “A lot of people are counting on me, so I feel like I have a city on my back. I know East Palo Alto has completely changed over the years. I want to be recognized as someone from the city.”
Contact Chuck Barney at email@example.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/chuckbarney and Facebook.com/bayareanewsgroup.chuckbarney.
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